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Ireland’s high standards mean winning against Australia is a necessity

The weaknesses in the visiting Australian team mean that they are very beatable.

Schmidt is hoping to make it two wins from two on Saturday.
Schmidt is hoping to make it two wins from two on Saturday.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

IT’S STILL EARLY days in Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland coach but losing to Australia would be a disappointing failure even if the performance level is high.

This Wallabies team is eminently beatable, with some glaring weaknesses once again apparent in their 50-20 win over Italy last weekend. Ewen McKenzie’s side certainly improved from the 20-13 defeat to England, but there was enough poor play to encourage Ireland.

One of the aspects of the game that Australia are currently struggling with is getting their forward runners over the gain-line. There is a real lack of powerful ball carriers in McKenzie’s pack, even in the back-row where captain and No. 8 Ben Mowen is an excellent player but limited in terms of explosiveness.

Sitaleki Timani in the second row is over 120kg, but his body height in contact is invariably too high and he fails to make the impact that his bulk suggests is possible. Even against Italy, Australia repeatedly failed to get over the advantage line through their forward runners, and poor defensive errors from Italy were at the root of many of the Wallabies’ seven tries.

The knock-on effect of that lack of ballast up front is that Will Genia is generally working off scraps. In fairness, the Wallabies breakdown speed was a little better against Italy and resulted in the scrum-half having a good performance. Still, against the better breakdown sides, the Reds playmaker has been struggling to impose himself.

The perception of the Wallabies pack as soft is based on the realities of their performances in the last year. McKenzie has a handful of hugely talented backs at his disposal and has highlighted the fact that he wants to play high-tempo, exciting rugby. But that simply can’t happen without a pack who can consistently provide a platform.

Against Italy and England in the last two weeks, the creative Quade Cooper has been forced to line up very deep because of that failure to get over the gain-line on the forwards’ part. The out-half thrives when he plays very flat, asking questions of the defence and putting his backs into holes either side of the would-be tacklers.

imageThis Ireland team should judge themselves against high standards. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

That did happen on several occasions against Italy, but not consistently enough. The Australians’ scrummaging ability has been highlighted as another weakness, particularly in light of what the Lions did to them there during the summer. Again, it’s an area that Ireland can really target, with Cian Healy and Mike Ross to start and Jack McGrath to finish the job late on.

The breakdown is as crucial a facet as ever and certainly one where Ireland can do damage. If the Wallabies runners aren’t getting beyond the gain-line, there will be chances for turnovers and steals. Sean O’Brien, Rory Best and Paul O’Connell can lead that charge, with Brian O’Driscoll adding his experience too. Losing Chris Henry to a hamstring injury is a blow, as this game would have suited him ideally.

Schmidt’s focus, as ever, will be on improving his own side’s performance, something which he has admitted is a priority. The sloppy kicking we saw from Ireland against Samoa simply cannot be repeated, as the likes of Israel Folau and Nick Cummins will punish it with glee in counter-attack. If Ireland are to kick, they need to be more accurate and chase better.

Defensively, there will have been a concentrated effort from Les Kiss to ensure Ireland tighten up markedly. Again, if Ireland allow Australia the five line-breaks they conceded against Samoa, they are more likely to be back under their posts after a try. The issues against Samoa appeared to be based on mis-communication and if that is the case, they are readily fixable.

Schmidt’s era as Ireland coach will be judged by the same high standards he reached with Leinster, and the same high standards that he demands from his players. That means that anything other than an Ireland win against what is an inconsistent and flawed Australian team would not be hitting those heights.

This is a game Ireland should be winning, and their attitude this week will be based around seeing themselves as favourites.

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Murray Kinsella

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